Do you know the difference between undergraduate and graduate students? Well, there’s a major difference between the two. You may be surprised to learn that the contrast means more than you think. In this article, we’ll uncover the truth behind an undergraduate versus a graduate.

If you spend any amount of time near or around people with higher education— either on or off campus— you may hear the terms graduate program and undergraduate program. 

With that said, if you are planning to further your education, you may need to know what a graduate program is.

So, continue on to find out the differences between undergraduate and graduate.

The Biggest Difference is the Most Obvious One

You may know that there are four main degrees that you can obtain through post-secondary schooling.

After your high school years and your well-earned diploma, you can continue on to obtain an associates degree, bachelors degree, masters degree or a doctorate. Under general rules, you have to go in that order with the previous leading to the next.

As you advance in your degree programs, the classes become more and more focused. The terms undergraduate vs graduate refer to the degrees you are currently pursuing.

If you are an undergraduate student or are enrolled in an undergraduate program, then you are either trying to obtain or advance in your degree.

Likewise, if you are a graduate student or enrolled in a graduate program, that means you have a bachelor’s degree and are now attempting to collect a masters degree or doctorate.

The major variation, of course, is which degree you are currently after. Even if the end goal is a doctorate, if you are yet to obtain your bachelor’s degree, you are an undergraduate.

Differences Classroom between Undergraduate vs Graduate program

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Beyond the first and most important contrast, there are subtle differences you should be aware of that take place inside the institution— the classes themselves vary in design and structure.

For example, undergrads take classes that are broader in scope and have a more generalized lesson plan. The basics of education are reiterated and expanded upon, and the general lessons offer a wider array of classes. They also provide a more general overview instead of directly focusing on learning.

When you advance to a graduate program, your classes have a sharper target on a particular subject. You are required to show a mastery of a more specialized involvement than you would in an undergraduate program.

Another classroom difference is attendance size. For instance, a class of 100 students in Biology 201 is filtered to 15 students in microbiology, 20 in marine biology, etc. The more focused the program, the fewer students there will be in a particular class.

Sometimes those classes will have as few as four or five students per class. When you reach the doctorate classes, you may even find a more specialized one-on-one class of study.

Differences Classroom between Undergraduate vs Graduate program

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While you are in an undergraduate program, you will spend a lot of your time in the classroom or laboratory. 

Graduate programs are more geared towards research and study and less on lessons and lectures. By the time you have your bachelors degrees, the sessions are all but over. You will fill your time with writing research papers, thesis papers, and specialized studying.

The testing varies as well. While you are in an undergrad program, your exams are a primary portion of your grade and covers the broad spectrum of the class of study.

In a graduate program, however, the exams are more crucial and hold a heavier weight. The tests are more comprehensive, and you are unlikely to see a multiple choice question again.

It May Be Difficult To Change

If you are in an undergraduate program and decide you want to change schools or fields of study, it is much easier to do so. The focus is much broader during the first four years, so you can take your credits and classes and switch to a different school or change your focus entirely.

Once you enroll in a graduate program, you will be far less likely to be able to make a switch. Each school will have a particular method of teaching or a specific specialization which makes it near impossible to change locations or study focus.

If you enroll in a graduate program and decide to make a change, you’ll likely have to start over completely. For that reason,  most institutions and programs ensure that the students are fully dedicated to a particular field, career choice, and area of study.

That isn’t to say making a change is impossible or unheard of, but the road is costly, difficult, and may result in loss of credits or tuition fees.

The Career May Not Warrant A Graduate Program

Some career paths ask their employees to have an associate’s or even a bachelor’s degree. However, it is far less common for major career fields to ask for or even require a graduate program degree.

While some professions must have a doctorate, others use graduate degrees as a chance to promote or make more in their salary.

You should always examine your chosen career path and determine if it requires a graduate level degree.

Value is always placed on study and schooling; however, experience also counts. Some fields place higher importance on actually doing the job instead of spending the years in the classroom learning about it. Depending on your career choice, you need to see if a master’s or doctorate is worth it to you.

How To Decide If You Should Get A Graduate Degree

Making the decision to get a graduate degree is a big deal and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Getting an advanced education is a decision that will have a lifelong impact. With that said, if you’re not sure if you should get a graduate degree, here are a few things to consider:

Earning Potential

The financial gain that comes with getting a graduate degree is the biggest motivator for most people to go to graduate school. However, that shouldn’t be the primary determining factor—especially if you’re still unsure about your career path. It’s costly to go back to school for a higher degree, so make sure it’s worth it. Even if you get a job that pays well, it won’t matter if you have lots of loan debt.

Career Advancement

One of the many perks of getting a higher degree is job opportunities. Graduate students have a wider range of career choices available to them—especially in the field of psychology, healthcare, and social work.

Better Education

The truth is, getting a graduate degree feels good. Just the higher education itself is enough to make a person feel accomplished. Not to mention, it gives you more knowledge about your career field.

Career Change

Sometimes people change their minds about their career path, and that’s okay. If you discover that your current job isn’t rewarding, you can always go back to school to learn something new.

Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Get A Graduate Degree

Now that we’ve discussed some reasons to go to graduate school, here are some reasons that you shouldn’t go:

Time Consuming

You’ll have to dedicate more time to your education. If you’re a busy person, this might not be a good option. You must set aside the time necessary to earn your degree. The last thing you want is to start the program and not finish because of a lack of time.

No Guarantee of More Money

The assumption is that you’ll have a higher salary if you get a higher education, but that’s not necessarily true. It’s a bit of a risk, so make sure you choose wisely.


Believe it or not, graduate programs have less availability. There’s always a competition for grants and research positions, which is a bit of a headache.


That’s right, there’s a such thing as too much education and experience. There are limited jobs available, and some jobs like to take short cuts. Basically, if they can spend less money by hiring a person with less education they’ll do so. Unfortunately, having a higher education means you bring more to the table, which some employers aren’t willing to pay.

The Dissertation and Qualifications

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The last major difference between an undergraduate and graduate program comes in the requirements needed to earn your degree. While an undergraduate will need to attend class, complete homework and classwork and pass exams, it will be a lot different for graduate programs.

As an undergraduate, if you show up, do the work and pass your classes, you will receive your degree. Once you enroll in a graduate course, the classroom, you will be expected to go off on your own.

You won’t have a strict attendance policy, and you may not be in a classroom. Instead, you will have papers to write, exams to pass and a dissertation to complete.

The dissertation is the one article that can keep you from getting your doctorate. Even if all classes are passed and have a perfect record of attendance. If you do not have your thesis paper and dissertation complete and reviewed, you won’t get your degree.

A thesis is a project based paper or essay that marks the completion of your master’s degree program. It shows you have a mastery of the subject and have done the required research and investigative study.

A dissertation is completed during the doctorate level of schooling. Instead of showing a mastery of a subject, the dissertation is an example of a new way of thinking. The essay is to show a new idea, support the idea, research, and fight for its place in acceptance.

Final Thoughts On The Difference Between An Undergraduate And Graduate Program

There are several major and minor differences between undergraduate vs graduate programs the most obvious being the level of education. The first two degrees (associates and bachelors) are undergraduate programs that have a wide range of study.

The classes are larger, and the field of study is broader. The graduate programs, on the other hand, are more skill and career focused. Smaller classes, more emphasis on a specialized field of study and of course, the thesis paper and dissertations.

You have to progress naturally and in order. There isn’t an option to skip a bachelor’s degree and head straight for a master’s. Each one of must come and be completed in accordance with the degree guidelines through the particular field of study.

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